Zen & Japanese Culture
The Chrysanthemum & the Sword

The Sword
Troubles escalated in the eleventh century. Upcountry military factions, most importantly those linked to the rival Minamoto and Taira clans, began to demand greater and greater influence at court. The established Fujiwara ministers temporized by making alliances with importunate warlords, bringing their representatives into the government. But by the twelfth century the hegemony of the old aristocrats was clearly going terminal; it was merely a matter of time before a decisive move by one or another of the warlords would effect radical change in the political order. That disruption, inevitably, would be on a scale to turn society, culture, and religion upside down. ... The Kamakura revolution brought a new class to full power, the samurai (literally “servers”) and their feudal daimyo or lords. They have been compared to the European knights who were their contemporaries, but differences as well as similarities obtained. Both honored above all loyalty to their liege in similar feudal systems. Both fought on horseback, in contrast to the common soldiers on foot, and both were clad in armor — though the Japanese armor, made of steel strips held together by thongs, was considerably lighter and more flexible than the European, even as the well-tempered samurai swords, of which their bearers were inordinately proud, were perhaps the best in the world. (Introducing Japanese Religions, 106-108)

Who Was in Charge?

Nara (710-784) & Heian (794-1185)
710-856 Emperors or combinations of nobles
856-1086 Fujiwara nobles
1086-1160 Retired emperors
1160-1180 Military house of Taira

Kamakura Shogunate (1185-1333)
1185 Founded by Minamoto Yoritomo
1219 Usurped by the Hojo
1274/1281 Mongol Invasions
Ashikaga Shogunate (1336-1467)
1333-1336 Emperor Go-Daigo: Kemmu Restoration
1336 Ashikaga Shogunate founded by Ashikaga Takauji
1467-1568 Onin War/Sengoku (Warring States) Era

Tokugawa Shogunate (1600-1868)
1568-1600 Azuchi-Momoyama Period: Oda Nobunaga & Toyotomi Hideyoshi
1600-1868 Tokugawa Shogunate founded by Tokugawa Ieyasu
[However,] another view of life and glory also colored the world of the samurai. The great epic Heike Monogatari (c. 1240), or Tale of the Heike, tells the story of the rise and fall of the Taira or Heike house in the era of the Gempei wars, setting all against the backdrop of a profoundly Buddhist sense of evanescence. Its descriptions of the great battles and political issues of the era are lucid and dramatic. Swords and armor flash in the sun; courtiers whisper intrigue in palace corridors at midnight.
But the book is deepened by a further motif — a somber, elegiac tone that evokes the ultimate futility of striving for power and glory on the field of honor, even though it does not deny the heroism and splendor of the samurai endeavor. This grand narrative makes clear that the reason for the final fall of the Taira, and especially their leader Kiyomori, was failure to realize that all human life and glory is but vanity. In their pride they thought themselves exceptions to the lot of mortals. But the oft-quoted opening lines of the Heike tell us:
In the sound of the bell of the Gion temple echoes the impermanence of all things. The pale hue of the flowers of the teak tree show the truth that they who prosper must fall. The proud ones do not last long, but vanish like a spring-night’s dream. And they mighty ones too will perish in the end, like dust before the wind.
Indeed, not a few samurai, ultimately sickened by the carnage which was the cost of their glory, turned in the end to religion, taking Buddhist vows. (Introducing Japanese Religions, 108-109)

The Chrysanthemum
Late in the twelfth century, the war fought between two powerful military clans, the Taira and the Minamoto, brought an end to the Heian period, four hundred years after the founding of the capital in Kyoto. The ensuing medieval period also lasted some four hundred years until a new order was created at the end of the sixteenth century.
       The victory of the Minamoto clan, which established its capital at Kamakura in the east, did not cause the aristocratic society of the Heian capital to collapse immediately. Members of the emperor’s court led much the same lives as before, as we know from their diaries and the poetry they composed, whether on the conventionally admired sights of nature or bittersweet memories of love. But with the foundation of the new capital by the shogun Minamoto Yoritomo, warriors (bushi) now dominated the scene, and the literature of the medieval period came to be characterized by accounts of the warfare that the samurai waged rather than by the writings of the court.
Aesthetic attitudes soon changed in similar ways, and the new masters of Japan imposed their own criteria of taste. Nonetheless, these changes tended to be softened by the influence of miyabi [elegance, refinement, courtliness], and even the fiercest warlord was to be much more likely to compose poetry on the beauty of falling cherry blossoms than on the joys of victory in battle. ... The distinctive aesthetic standards in literature and art that eventually emerged did not represent a sharp break with the past so much as an intensifying and darkening of Heian ideals. The seemingly endless warfare gave new meaning to the uncertainty of life, which also was a frequent theme in the writings of the Heian courtiers, who saw death in the falling of blossoms or in a moment of parting, but still there was a difference. The court lady who in the past had brooded over a lover’s neglect was now likely to suffer more immediate grief on learning he had been killed in battle. In some diaries, women described their emotions on seeing their lover’s head on a pike being paraded through the streets.
The aesthetic ideals that pervaded the poetry, drama, painting, gardens, tea ceremony, and many other activities of the medieval period cannot be evoked by one single word, but yugen is perhaps the most characteristic. The term yugen was used to evoke the profound, remote, and mysterious, those things that cannot easily be grasped or expressed in words. ... The Japanese of the medieval period courted ambiguity, leaving empty spaces in their compositions for readers or spectators to fill in according to their intuitive understanding of the ultimate meaning of the poem or play. ...
Yugen may be comprehended by the mind, but it cannot be expressed in words. Its quality may be suggested by the sight of a thin cloud veiling the moon or by autumn mist swathing the scarlet leaves on a mountainside. If one is asked where in these sights lies the yugen, one cannot say, and it is not surprising that a man who does not understand this truth is likely to prefer the sight of a perfectly clear, cloudless sky. It is quite impossible to explain wherein lies the interest or the remarkable nature of yugen.
Even though it may be impossible to explain yugen, we can intuitively sense it. “It is just as when we look at the sky of an autumn dusk. It has no sound or color, and yet, though we do not understand why, we somehow find ourselves moved to tears.” (Sources of Japanese Tradition, 364-366)

& Kinkakuji

During the medieval period, another aesthetic ideal, sabi, joined yugen. Sabi is a very old word, found as far back as the Manyoshu, in which it has the meaning of “to be desolate.” It later acquired the meaning of “to grow old” and is related to the phrase “to grow rusty.” In The Tale of the Heike, we find it used in the sentence “It was a place old with moss-covered boulders, and he thought it would be pleasant to live there.” It seems likely that already by this time (the thirteenth century), sabi suggested not only “old” but the taking of pleasure in what was old, faded, or lonely. To achieve yugen, art had sometimes been stripped of its color and glitter lest these externals distract. For instance, a bowl of highly polished silver reflects more than it suggests, but one of oxidized silver has the mysterious beauty of stillness, as Zeami realized when he used for stillness the simile of snow piled in a silver bowl. Or one may prize such a bowl for the tarnished quality itself, its oldness and its imperfection, and this is the point at which we feel sabi.

We find a beautiful statement of sabi in Essays in Idleness (Tsurezuregusa) by Yoshida Kenko (1283?-1352?) when he asks
Are we to look at cherry blossoms only in full bloom, the moon only when cloudless? To long for the moon while looking on the rain, to lower the blinds and be unaware of the passing of the spring — these are even more deeply moving. Branches about to blossom or gardens strewn with faded flowers are worthier of our admiration. ... People commonly regret that the cherry blossoms scatter or that the moon sinks in the sky, and this is natural; but only an exceptionally insensitive man would say, “This branch and that branch have lost their blossoms. There is nothing worth seeing now.” (SJT, 367-8)


Wabi-sabi is the most conspicuous and characteristic feature of what we think of as traditional Japanese beauty. ... The closest English word to wabi-sabi is probably “rustic.” Webster’s defines “rustic” as “simple, artless, or unsophisticated ... [with] surfaces rough or irregular.” While “rustic” represents only a limited dimension of the wabi-sabi aesthetic, it is the initial impression many people have when they first see a wabi-sabi expression. ... Originally, the Japanese words “wabi” and “sabi” had quite different meanings. “Sabi” originally meant “chill,” “lean,” or “withered.” “Wabi” originally meant the misery of living alone in nature, away from society, and suggested a discouraged, dispirited, cheerless emotional state. Around the 14th century, the meanings of both words began to evolve in the direction of more positive aesthetic values. The self-imposed isolation and voluntary poverty of the hermit and ascetic came to be considered opportunities for spiritual richness. For the poetically inclined, this kind of live fostered an appreciation of the minor details of everyday life and insights into the beauty of the inconspicuous and overlooked aspects of nature. In turn, unprepossessing simplicity took on new meaning as the basis for a new, pure beauty. (Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers, 21-22) Although wabi-sabi quickly permeated almost every aspect of sophisticated Japanese culture and taste, it reached its most comprehensive realization within the context of the tea ceremony ... [which] became an eclectic social art form combining, among other things, the skills of architecture, interior and garden design, flower arranging, painting, food preparation, and performance. The accomplished tea practitioner was someone who could orchestrate all these elements — and the guests in attendance — into a quietly exciting artistic event that thematically cohered. At its artistic zenith, realizing the universe of wabi-sabi in its fullness was the underlying goal of tea.
The first recorded wabi-sabi tea master was Murata Shuko (a.k.a. Murata Juko, 1423-1502), a Zen monk from Nara. Around this time in secular society, tea had become an elite pastime indulged in, in no small part, because of the prestige associated with ownership of elegant foreign-made tea-related objects. Shuko, in opposition to this fashion, used intentionally understated, locally produced utensils whenever possible. ... About a hundred years after Shuko’s innovation, wabi-sabi was brought to its apotheosis by Sen no Rikyu (1522-1591). ... Rikyu, along with nine other tea masters, helped [Toyotomi] Hideyoshi by procuring and appraising tea-related objects and by interpreting the complex protocol of tea and tea utensils used in formal situations. Although the late 16th century was a period of almost continuous warfare, it was also a time of creativity and invention in the arts. In tea there was considerable experimentation with objects, architectural space, and the ritual itself. It was in the midst of this cultural flux that Rikyu secured his most enduring aesthetic triumph: to unequivocally place crude, anonymous, indigenous Japanese and Korean folkcraft — things wabi-sabi — on the same artistic level, or even higher than, slick, perfect, Chinese treasures. Rikyu also created a new kind of tea room based on the prototype of a farmer’s hut of rough mud walls, thatched roof, and misshapen exposed wood structural elements. Rikyu then compressed this room down to an astounding two tatami mats, a mere thirty-nine square feet.
Unfortunately, Rikyu’s turn toward simple, modest, and natural values was not well appreciated by his employer. Hideyoshi, a man of peasant origins, was suspicious of Rikyu’s taste for what could also be called the ugly and the obscure. Was Rikyu cynically offering the emperor some new clothes? Hideyoshi’s aesthetic ideal, it should be noted, was the ultimate expression of Chinese gorgeousness: the gold-leafed tea room. Rikyu’s aesthetic challenge created a rift in their relationship that, among other things — Hideyoshi’s jealousy of Rikyu’s growing acclaim, Rikyu’s political indiscretions and tea utensil profiteering — finally prompted Hideyoshi to order Rikyu’s ritual suicide at the age of seventy. (Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers, 31-34)

Heian Style Pond
Zen Rock Garden

Heian Style Buddhist Painting
Zen Painting by Sesshu (1420-1506)

Heian Style Banquet
Zen Kaiseki Cuisine

Ikebana (Flower Arranging)
Noh Theater